can (or should) emergent be a prophetic national voice?

Underneath the Cosmetics
Before asking how church should look, let’s make sure we’re clear what the church is for.
by Brian McLaren

I’m often asked by pastors, as I was recently, “Should our church adopt a more emergent approach?” Often the assumption is that adding certain forms (candles, incense, a particular style of music) will make a church “emergent.” But I want to reply: “What would it profit to gain the cosmetics of an emerging church and lose the deeper opportunity?”

As churches seek reinvigoration, many are finding inspiration from emerging/missional approaches (the plural is important). But many focus on the forms and miss the foundational issues. The deeper opportunity is more than rethinking how church should “look” or be “done.” It’s the chance to ask what the church is for.

Most of us have our “theologically correct” answer. The church’s purpose is worship, or evangelism, or making disciples, or some combination. But deeper than our conscious answers are our unspoken, unexamined, perhaps even unconscious beliefs&emdash;four of which are especially powerful these days:

The church exists to …

Provide a civil religion for the state

Preserve and promote certain social values

Provide a living for religious professionals

Promote the satisfaction of its members.
It is on this deeper level that the emerging/missional conversation has, in my opinion, the most to offer.

The civil religion approach in America speaks much of America as a Christian nation, or at least one with “Judeo-Christian roots.” It frequently speaks of “going back” to days that were supposedly better.

But this approach fails to realize how compromised those supposedly Christian roots are&emdash;by slavery and racism, for example. What Native American would like to go back to the nineteenth century? What African American would like to go back to the 1950’s? Dr. King used to say that the church must be neither the master of the state nor its servant, but rather its conscience.

If we seek to reinvigorate our churches but fail to be a prophetic voice in our nation, we miss an important opportunity. Or, put another way, if in ten years more of our churches are thriving and growing&emdash;but racism is intact and no less entrenched, will we be satisfied?

Closely related to the civil religion approach is the “social values” approach. Nobody is against things like the health of the family, but what happens when the church lets someone else&emdash;a political party or a cultural patron&emdash;set its agenda? The emergent conversation is asking whether we can bring together the positive values held by both social and theological conservatives and liberals.

For example, conservatives have a lot to say about fighting divorce, but they’ve had less to say about caring for creation. Liberals have a lot to say about fighting poverty, but they haven’t said much about fighting the sexualization of our pre-adolescent children. A convergent conversation would stop looking for patrons on either the left or right to set the agenda, and would instead seek to combine strengths while challenging the conscience of both.

Nobody would ever say&emdash;overtly&emdash;that the purpose of the church is to provide employment for religious professionals, but we would be naïve to think that this assumption isn’t hiding within us and our institutions. Colleges and universities can subtly come to think of themselves as existing for faculty and administration, not students or the world to be served by those students. And religious professionals can certainly drift into this unintended self-absorption, especially during hard times when self-preservation is threatened.

Likewise, few would say the church exists for the benefit of its members alone. No pastor I know would claim the title “purveyor of religious goods and services to a discriminating spiritual clientele.” But pastors know what happens when they ask members to sacrifice personal tastes or preferences for the sake of mission. (Often they become ex-pastors!)

The emerging church is raising these deeper questions and proposing that the church exists to be a catalyst for the kingdom of God as a transforming force in the world. This doesn’t minimize worship, evangelism, or making disciples; it puts those elements within their grand purpose.

Not everyone is interested in this exploration. But just about everyone would agree it’s more substantial than candles and cosmetics.

Brian McLaren is founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland.

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